By Stephanie Dahl, Responding with Sensitivity editor for The Attached Family
The hours of 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., known in the restaurant and lounge world as “Happy Hour,” have not been historically happy in my house. A more accurate term would be the “Wicked Hours.” The reason for this is that two essential parenting principles were in conflict with one another during that timeframe: Feed with Love and Respect, and Respond with Sensitivity. I wanted to be both fully present to help facilitate positive play and lovingly cook a healthy homemade dinner — at the same time. It seemed impossible to do both.
Around 4 p.m., I would start to cook dinner. Because I use fresh ingredients and cook from scratch, my attention would be on meal preparation. I can’t see the living room while I’m in the kitchen in my house, so supervising my toddlers while preparing dinner was a challenge. Most often, I would be a frazzled mess, bouncing between the kitchen and living room.
By 5:30 p.m., my husband arrived home and we all sat down at the table to have a meal together. But the children were cranky, I was cantankerous, and he was tired. Family mealtime was not shaping up to be as positive as I had hoped. Change was needed.
In order to cook dinner and meet my children’s needs, I had to either adjust how I was approaching dinner or adjust how I structured my children’s time. As it turns out, I ended up doing a little of both, depending upon the meal.
Here are two meal preparation techniques I’ve found helpful for streamlining cooking:
- Slow Cooker — While the kids are napping in the afternoon, I can prepare our dinner ingredients and pop them into the slow cooker to cook on high until dinner time. There are very diverse recipes that can be made in a slow cooker. (Not everything will be a casserole!)
- Freezer Storage — You can take this as far as you’d like, but the basic idea is to prepare ingredients or meals ahead of time and freeze them. Some people dedicate a day to making and freezing their meals for the next 30 days, but I’m not that organized. Instead, I do some basic ingredient preparation that saves time, such as chopping onions and freezing them flat in a plastic bag. When a recipe calls for onion, I just break off what I need from the freezer pack. You can also chop fresh herbs and freeze them in ice cube trays –- just pop out what you need for your meal.
If I’m cooking more traditionally, I know I’ll need great activities to keep my kids nearby and occupied:
— I partially fill a long, shallow tub with dry bulk goods (such as beans, peas, or flax seed), drop in some measuring spoons, and let the girls scoop, stir, and experience soothing tactile sensations.
- Little Chefs — While I’m not yet comfortable sharing the stove with my children, I’ve begun to incorporate tasks that they can safely do to help. Plastic knives are safe for little hands and do a nice job of slicing soft fruits and vegetables. (We hand-wash and reuse the knives.) My girls also enjoy measuring and pouring ingredients and taking turns stirring (nothing hot!).
- Tablescape —
The girls have their own drawer with their tableware and they love getting the things they need for dinner. Sometimes they end up with a few too many bowls, or need a reminder to grab a spoon, but giving them the responsibility for collecting their own dinnerware has been such a joy for all of us. And you’d be surprised at how engaging this activity can be!
- Floor Art — Coloring can be such a fun activity, but somehow it is even better when done on a giant piece of paper on the floor. Check your local newspaper to see if they offer end rolls of newsprint, try butcher paper (available at most office supply stores), or use large scrap paper (we recently used the backs of used wrapping paper).
These little changes have made a tremendous difference in our afternoons. Now I’m either letting the slow cooker do the work or I have engaging, constructive activities for the kids to do while I cook. And 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. in our home is now known as our “Happy Hours.”